If there's one thing you can rely on Hollis Thompson to do, it's shoot.
Thompson led all rookies in three point percentage last season at 40.1%, His jump shot was a model of consistency as, after getting acclimated to the NBA, he shot 40% or better from three point range in each of the last 4 months of the season.
This followed a three year career at Georgetown where he never shot under 43% from three point range in a season, finishing his college career shooting 44% on 291 attempts from deep.
So when a guy like Thompson comes out and struggles like he has so far this year, shooting 34.7% on 95 three point attempts, it's natural to wonder what is going on.
Could Thompson be hurt, the kind of injury that isn't enough to keep him out of games or practice, but impacts the repeatability of his shot? We've heard no word of that being the case. Could last season have been a mirage? That seems unlikely considering his success at Georgetown.
The early speculation was that Michael Carter-Williams' absence was impacting Thompson's ability to get open looks. There may be some truth to that, as Thompson has shot 40% from three with Carter-Williams on the court so far this season, but only 28.9% with him off the court.
Still, Thompson didn't take near the hit from the perimeter when Michael Carter-Williams was off the floor last year, shooting 38.6% when Carter-Williams was on the bench. It's also not a case where Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes were picking up the shot-creation slack when Carter-Williams was off the floor, either: Hollis Thompson shot 47.1% from three point range with Michael Carter-Williams on the bench after the 2014 NBA trade deadline.
Turns out, there may be another contributing factor.
Brett Brown and his player development team have been working with Thompson to speed up his release.
The changes are slight, borderline imperceptible. Slight changes in his footwork, preparation, and hand placement. Things such as the placement of his left foot so he can more quickly step into the shot with his right foot, having his hands ready to get the ball into and through the shooting pocket quicker, how much dip to have in a shooting motion, could all factor into the speed of his release.
"So much of it ends up [being] preparation. What are you doing before the ball comes to you?" Brett Brown said, when asked about making Thompson's shot quicker. "What are you doing with your feet, and what are you doing with your hands? All those types of things to get his shot off quicker."
They're slight changes, but even the slightest of changes can impact the timing and repeatability of a jump shot until the muscle memory, and comfort level, are fully formed. Even just taking the same mechanics, but trying to speed up the motion and limit the time in the shooting pocket, can throw a players timing and rhythm off.
But the team has made a quicker release a priority for Thompson this season.
"Everybody has their own roadmap," Brown said about goals for his team. "I have a great development staff."
On that player development staff it has been Billy Lange, a former assistant on Jay Wright's Villanova staff, who has been Thompson's main point of contact.
"At first it's like 'I don't want anybody messing with my shot'," Thompson said when asked about his initial response to changes, considering his past success. "But at the end of the day, they know what they're doing, and I do need to find ways to get my shot off quicker and faster. So I just have to work on it and push through."
Thompson admitted that it's tough not to revert back to his old form and pace when he he runs into struggles.
"You want to go back to the old way immediately," Thompson said. "Sometimes it's just like, 'You know what, forget all that, I'm just going to go out and just do me.' But I think with repetition and time, the way it felt before, it will feel that way with these new mechanics."
Brett Brown isn't concerned about his early season struggles.
"He can shoot. There's no doubt Hollis can shoot," Brown said. "We encourage him to shoot. We have seen the benefit when Hollis and Robert Covington get going."
We frequently say that the success of the Sixers season is not necessarily predicated on wins and losses, but on player development. Likewise, the success of Hollis Thompson's season isn't necessarily evaluated on how frequently the ball goes in the basket, but on how much progress he makes towards becoming a better jump shooter.
Those two statements might seem contradictory, but they're not. This isn't necessary a linear trajectory. The goal isn't necessarily to make sure Hollis Thompson is making as many three's as he can this year, but to increase his effectiveness long term.
The impact a shooter can make isn't measured just in how many jump shots he makes, or how frequently, but in how much space he can create for his teammates. If the Sixers are able to quicken Hollis Thompson's release they can make defenders more hesitant to rotate off of him, as they would be less confident in their ability to rotate back and contest his shot.
If the Sixers, and Thompson, are able to get to this end goal, any short term struggles would be well worth it.